Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Thomas Jefferson to John Waldo, 16 August 1813

To John Waldo

Monticello Aug. 16.1 13.


Your favor of Mar. 27. came during my absence on a journey of some covered your ‘Rudiments of English grammar,’ for which I pray you to accept my thanks. this acknolegement of it has been delayed until I could have time to give the work such a perusal as the avocations to which I am subject would permit. in the rare & short intervals which these have allowed me, I have gone over, with pleasure, a considerable part, altho’ not the whole of it. but I am entirely unqualified to give that critical opinion of it, which you do me the favor to ask. mine has been a life of business; of that kind which appeals to a man’s conscience, as well as his industry, not to let it suffer; and the few moments allowed me from labor, have been devoted to more attractive studies; that of Grammar having never been a favorite with me. the scanty foundation laid in it at school, has carried me thro’ a life of much hasty writing, more indebted for style to reading and memory, than to rules of grammar. I have been pleased to see that in all cases you appeal to Usage, as the arbiter of language; & justly consider that as giving law to Grammar, & not Grammer to Usage. I concur entirely with you, in opposition to the Purists, who2 would destroy all strength & beauty of style, by subjecting it to a rigorous compliance with their rules. fill up all the Ellipses and Syllepses of Tacitus, Sallust, Livy Etc and the elegance & force of their sententious brevity are extinguished. ‘deorum injurias, diis curae.’3—‘alieni appetens, sui profusus; ardens in cupiditatibus; satis loquentiae, sapientiae parum.’—‘Annibal peto pacem.’—‘per diem Sol non uret te neque luna per noctem.’ wire-draw these expressions, by filling up the whole syntax and sense, & they become dull paraphrases on rich sentiments. we may say then truly with Quinctilian ‘aliud est Grammaticé, aliud Latiné loqui.’ I am no friend therefore to what is called Purism; but a zealous one to the Neology which has introduced these two words without the authority of any dictionary. I consider the one as destroying the nerve & beauty of language, while the other improves both, and adds to it’s copiousness. I have been not a little disappointed and made suspicious of my own judgment, on seeing the Edinburg Reviewers, the ablest critics of the age, set their faces against the introduction of new words into the English language. they are particularly apprehensive that the writers of the United States will adulterate it. certainly so great and growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer it’s purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. the new circumstances under which we are placed call for new words, new phrases and for the transfer of old words to new objects. an American dialect will therefore be formed; so will a West-Indian, and Asiatic, as a Scotch and an Irish are already formed. but whether will these adulterate, or enrich the English language? has the beautiful poetry of Burns, or his Scottish dialect, disfigured it? did the Athenians consider the Doric, the Ionian, the Aeolic & other dialects as disfiguring, or as beautifying their language? did they fastidiously disavow Herodotus, Pindar, Theocritus, Sappho, Alcaeus as Grecian writers? on the contrary, they were sensible that the variety of dialects, still infinitely varied by poetical license constituted the riches of their language, and made the Grecian Homer the first of poets, as he must ever remain, until a language, equally ductile & copious shall again be spoken.

Every language has a set of terminations, which make a part of it’s peculiar idiom. every root among the Greeks was permitted to vary it’s termination, so as to express it’s radical idea in the form of any one of the parts of speech; to wit, as a noun, an adjective, a verb, participle or adverb. and each of these parts of speech again, by still varying the termination, could vary the shade of idea existing in the mind. I will explain myself by an example. a Greek root could assume any one of these terminations.

subst. αληθ-εια -ιοτης ευθυ-νη -ωρια ωθ-ιςμος -ηςις. -ωϚης ψυχ-ωςις -αριον
Adject. αληθ-ης -ινος -ευτικος ευθυ-ς -ωρος  
Verbs. αληθ-ευω -ιζω . ευθυ-νω -ωρειν ωθ-εω
particip.  αληθευ-ων -ως. -ας. -ομενος -εις     
adv. αληθ-ες -ως -ινως ευθυ ευθυ-ωρον  

it was not then the number of Grecian roots (for some other languages may have as many) which made it the most copious of the antient languages; but the infinite diversification which each of these admitted. let the same license be allowed in English the roots of which, native & adopted, are perhaps more numerous, and it’s idiomatic terminations more various than of the Greek, and see what the language would become. it’s idiomatic terminations are

subst. Gener-ation-ator-osity-ousness-alship-alissimo. degener-acy. King-dom-ling. Joy-ance. Enjoy-er-ment. Herb-age-alist. Sanct-uary-imony-itude. Royal-ism. Lamb-kin. Child-hood. Bishop-ric. Proced-ure. horseman-ship. worthi-ness.
adject. Gener-ant-ative-ic-ical-able-ous-al.-Joy-ful-less-some. Herb-y-aceous-escent-ulent. child-ish. Wheat-en
verb Gener-ate-alise.
part. Gener-ating-ated.
adv. General-ly.

I do not pretend that this is a compleat list of all the terminations of the two languages. it is as much so as a hasty recollection suggests; and the omissions are as likely to be to the disadvantage of the one as the other. if it be a full, or equally fair, enumeration, the English are the double of the Greek terminations.

But there is still another source of copiousness more abundant than that of termination. it is the composition of the root, & of every member of it’s family 1. with prepositions, & 2. with other words. the prepositions used in the composition of Greek words are αμφi, ανα, αντι, απο, δια, εκ, εν, επι, κατα, παρα, περι, προ, προς, ςυν, ὑπερ, ὑπο. now multiply each termination of a family, into every preposition, & how prolific does it make each root! but the English language, besides it’s own prepositions, about 20. in number, which it compounds with English roots, uses those of the Greek for adopted Greek roots, and of the Latin for Latin roots.4 the English prepositions, with examples of their use are a, as in a-long, a-board, a-thirst, a-clock. be, as in be-lie. mis, as in mishap; these being inseparable. the separable, with examples, are above-cited, after-thought, gain-say, before-hand, fore-thought, behind-hand, by-law, for-give, fro-ward, in-born, on-set, over-go, out-go, thorough-go, under-take, up-lift, with-stand. now let us see what copiousness this would produce, were it allowed to compound every root & it’s family, with every preposition, where both sense & sound would be in it’s favor. try it on an English root, the verb ‘to place’ [Anglo-Saxon+Plæce] for instance, and the Greek and Latin roots of kindred meaning, adopted in English, to wit θεςις, and locatio, with their respective prepositions.

mis-place   amphithesis   a-location   interlocation
after-place anathesis ablocation introlocation
gain-place antithesis abslocation juxtalocation
fore-place apothesis allocation oblocation
hind-place diathesis antelocation perlocation
by-place ekthesis circumlocation postlocation
for-place enthesis cislocation prelocation
fro-place epithesis collocation preterlocation
in-place. catathesis contralocation prolocation
on-place parathesis delocation retrolocation
over-place perithesis di-location relocation
out place prothesis dislocation selocation
thoro’-place prosthesis elocation sublocation
under-place synthesis exlocation superlocation
up-place hyperthesis extralocation translocation
with-place hypothesis. illocation. ultralocation

Some of these compounds would be new; but all present distinct meanings, and the synonimes of the three languages offer a choice of sounds to express the same meaning. add to this that, in some instances, usage has authorised the compounding an English root with a Latin preposition; as in deplace, displace, replace. this example may suffice to shew what the language would become in strength, beauty, variety, and every circumstance which gives perfection to language, were it permitted freely to draw from all it’s legitimate sources.

The 2d source of composition is of one family of roots with another. the Greek avails itself of this most abundantly, & beautifully. the English once did it freely, while in it’s Anglo-Saxon form. e.g. boc-c[err]æ[eff][te], book-craft, learning. eo[Anglo-Saxon: err]ð-[Anglo-Saxon: yogh]eme[Anglo-Saxon: te], earth-mate, geometry. [Anglo-Saxon: ess][Anglo-Saxon: te][Anglo-Saxon: yr][Anglo-Saxon: err][Anglo-Saxon: yogh]en[Anglo-Saxon: de]e-[Anglo-Saxon: de][Anglo-Saxon: err]enc, stirring-drink, a cathartic. [Anglo-Saxon: err]ih[Anglo-Saxon: te]-[Anglo-Saxon: yogh]elea[Anglo-Saxon: eff]-[Anglo-Saxon: eff]ull, right-belief-ful, orthodox. but it has lost by desuetude much of this branch of composition, which it is desirable5 however to resume.

If we wish to be assured from experiment of the effect of a judicious spirit of Neology, look at the French language. even before the revolution, it was deemed much more copious than the English; at a time too when they had an Academy, which endeavored to arrest the progress of their language, by fixing it to a Dictionary, out of which no word was ever to be sought, used, or tolerated. the institution of Parliamentary assemblies in 1789. for which their language had no apposite terms or phrases, as having never before needed them, first obliged them to adopt the Parliamentary vocabulary of England; & other new circumstances called for corresponding new words; until, by the number of these adopted, & by the analogies for adoption which they have legitimated, I think we may say with truth that a Dictionnaire Neologique of these would be half as large as the Dictionary of the Academy; & that, at this time, it is the language in which every shade of idea, distinctly percieved by the mind, may be more exactly expressed, than in any language at this day spoken by man. yet I have no hesitation in saying that the English language is founded on a broader base, native and adopted, and capable, with the like freedom of employing it’s materials, of becoming superior to that in copiousness & euphony. not indeed by holding fast to Johnson’s dictionary:6 but by encouraging and welcoming new compositions of it’s elements. learn from Lye & Benson what the language would now have been if restrained to their Vocabularies. it’s enlargement must be the consequence to a certain degree, of it’s transplantation from the Latitude of London into every climate of the globe; and the greater the degree, the more precious will it become, as the organ for the developement of the human mind.

These are my visions on the improvement of the English language, by a free use of it’s faculties. to realise them would require a course of time. the example of good writers, the approbation of men of letters, the judgment of sound critics, and of none more than of the Edinburg Reviewers, would give it a beginning, & once begun, it’s progress might be as rapid as it has been in France, where we see what a period of only 20. years has effected. under the auspices of British science and example it might commence with hope. but the dread of innovation there, and especially of any example set by France, has, I fear, palsied the spirit of improvement. here, where all is new, no innovation is feared which offers good. but we have no distinct class of literati in our country. every man is engaged in some industrious pursuit; and science is but a secondary occupation, always subordinate to the main business of his life. few therefore, of those who are qualified, have leisure to write. in time it will be otherwise. in the mean while necessity obliges us to neologise. and should the language of England continue stationary, we shall probably enlarge our employment of it, until it’s new character may separate it in name, as well as in power, from the mother tongue.

Altho’ the copiousness of a language may not in strictness make a part of it’s grammar, yet it cannot be deemed foreign to a general course of lectures on it’s structure & character. and the subject having been presented to my mind by the occasion of your letter, I have indulged myself in it’s speculation, and hazarded to you what has occurred, with the assurance of my great respect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (CtY: Franklin Collection); brackets in original; at foot of first page: “Mr Waldo.” Dft (DLC).

deorum injurias, diis curae: “the gods must look to their own wrongs” (Tacitus, Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. (all editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. Citations given below are to the edition mounted on the American Memory website of the Library of Congress and give the date of the debate as well as page numbers) description ends , 1.73, in Tacitus, trans. Maurice Hutton, William Peterson, Clifford H. Moore, John Jackson, and others, Loeb Classical Library [1914–37; repr. 2006], 3:368–9). alieni appetens … sapientiae parum: “Covetous of others’ possessions, he was prodigal of his own; he was violent in his passions. He possessed a certain amount of eloquence, but little discretion” (Sallust, The War with Catiline, book 5, in Sallust, trans. John C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library [1921; repr. 1995], 8–9). annibal peto pacem: “I, Hannibal, am suing for peace” (Livy, History of Rome, 30.30.29, in Livy, trans. Benjamin O. Foster, Frank Gardner Moore, Evan T. Sage, and Alfred C. Schlesinger, Loeb Classical Library [1919–59; repr. dates vary], 8:480–1). per diem … per noctem: “The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night” (Psalms 121.6). aliud est grammaticé, aliud latiné loqui: “it is one thing to speak Latin and another to speak grammar” (Quintilian, The Institutio Oratoria, 1.6.27, in The Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian, trans. Harold E. Butler, Loeb Classical Library [1921–22; repr. 1969], 1:122–3). TJ characterized the Académie Française as attempting to arrest the progress of their language. He owned works on Anglo-Saxon vocabulary edited by Edward lye and Thomas benson (Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends nos. 4862–3).

1Reworked in both RC and Dft from “12.”

2In Dft TJ here canceled “by dint of regularity.”

3In Dft TJ interlined a second quotation from Tacitus: “auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus, imperium appellant” (“To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire”) (Tacitus, Agricola, 30.5, in Tacitus, Loeb Classical Library, 1:80–1).

4In Dft TJ here canceled “making in all about 70.”

5Preceding two words interlined in Dft in place of “ought.”

6In Dft TJ here added “not by raising a hue and cry against every word he has not licensed.”

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

+ + Johnson derives ‘Place’ from the French ‘Place’ an open square in a town. but it’s Northern parentage is visible in it’s synonim Platz, Teutonic, and Plattse, Belgic, both of which signify locus, and the Anglo-Saxon Plæce platea, vicus.

Index Entries

  • Académie Française search
  • A Dictionary of the English Language (S. Johnson) search
  • Alcaeus; mentioned search
  • Benson, Thomas; Vocabularium Anglo-Saxonicum search
  • Bible; Psalms referenced by TJ search
  • books; on grammar search
  • Burns, Robert; Scottish poet search
  • Dictionarium Saxonico et Gothico-Latinum (Lye) search
  • Edinburgh Review search
  • English language; Anglo-Saxon (Old English) search
  • English language; books on grammar of search
  • English language; evolution of search
  • English language; TJ on study of search
  • French language; evolution of search
  • Greek language; TJ on search
  • Herodotus; mentioned search
  • Homer; TJ on search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; receives books search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Livy search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Quintilian search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Sallust search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Tacitus search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; grammar search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; languages search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; neology search
  • Johnson, Samuel; A Dictionary of the English Language search
  • Livy (Titus Livius); mentioned search
  • Livy (Titus Livius); TJ quotes search
  • Lye, Edward; Dictionarium Saxonico et Gothico-Latinum search
  • philology; TJ on search
  • Pindar (Greek poet); mentioned search
  • Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus); TJ quotes search
  • Rudiments of English Grammar (J. Waldo) search
  • Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus); mentioned search
  • Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus); TJ quotes search
  • Sappho; mentioned search
  • Somner, William; Vocabularium Anglo-Saxonicum search
  • Tacitus; mentioned search
  • Tacitus; TJ quotes search
  • Theocritus; mentioned search
  • Vocabularium Anglo-Saxonicum (Benson and Somner) search
  • Waldo, John; letters to search
  • Waldo, John; Rudiments of English Grammar search